Tuesday, January 22, 2008
Through a Glass Darkly
One of the outstanding qualities of Through a glass darkly is the hermetic closeness of the world we see and very immediately, right from the first moment, as we watch four people swimming towards an island, an island that sets the setting for a minimalist monochrome, breakdown of senses, minds, bodies and walls. Even though film critics do not consider this Bergman movie as one of his very best and certainly not like wild strawberries, yet I felt in it the same qualities as in the seventh seal, the sea, the sea, Max Von Sydow, the running after God and yes, love sometimes.
Essentially, we watch frames and images and the lasting impressions after watching a movie are images that stay with us after time has flinched us, betrayed us. surely, here, we have some moments where the imagination of a great artist achieves a level of craft that borders on genius. This movie sustains an aura, an atmosphere and perhaps its greatest quality again is the lack of prelude, the quick drawing in of the viewer into this island world that is so tight with four people, Karin played by the the beautiful Harriet Anderson, psychotic and charming, with her mood swinging from moment to moment, her husband Martin, who is a figure tormented, torn between understanding her illness and loving her, her father, who has returned and is struggling to complete a novel, having left Karin and her younger brother, who has written a few plays and an opera, but wants his father to talk to him.
Karin's illness is essentially the thing around which the movie circles, her figure, her personality, which we are told is disintegrating. She hears voices, is commanded by unseen voices and is tormented between two worlds, one a supposedly normal one, the other a psychotic world of sensations and hallucinations. The intimate nature of her illness does not oppress us, we want to see more, but the understanding of a breakdown is conveyed quite well. And yet, Karin is a lonely figure, surrounded by a lonelier husband, a distant father fighting his own solitude, rising from the remains of a suicide attempt, his wife having lost and succumbed to an illness like Karin's. The incestuous play between Karin and her brother is not hidden, for Karin indulges in it in a way that goes with her persona, baffling her brother, who in a moment of Karin's madness, loses control. That moment is perhaps, I think, a defining moment in this movie, a fact acknowledged by Karin and her brother.
One of the important aspects of this movie is the setting, for where we to encounter them in a city, in a flat, in an opulent house, the madness might have seemed overplayed. The lack of colour adds an ethereal quality, the only house on an unnamed island, the sea, the sea gulls, the jetty, them, us, the silence, the words, the poetry and subliminal solitude, heartbreak and suffering. By Bergman's own account, this is a movie about conquered certainty, about God and love. The epilogue says that God and love are the same, as Karin, in an image that is stunning beautiful, after her breakdown, dons her dark glasses and her coat, and leaves for the city, for an institution and the camera does not follow her but lingers as she leaves the room and then we don't see her again. It is a triumph, this scene, for it is entirely credible and realistic and can happen. After she is gone, Minus and his father talk, talk of love and God, and both hope that she is surrounded by God, and Minus leaves for a run, while his father decides to cook.
Karin's illness, though not named, is perhaps not Bergman's central concern in this movie, for it interplays with his other sensibilities, mostly relying on faith. However, this platitude of God and love being the same seemed less convincing in the setting of the final moments, though I don't have any credible alternatives to the same. I felt that the atmosphere, which is so important here, is a crucial element of this movie, drawing us in to this world where Karin questions the legitimacy of suffering and being divided between two worlds. However, Karin is trying her best to make sense of a world that cannot be understood, even through a split vision and not just because of it. The title of the movie is important too, with a religious connotation but Bergman's characters usually are quite quiet, almost capable of further suffering, with an inner reserve and humility in being patient.
Karin's husband, played by Von Sydow, is the essential sufferer, cast on this island, in a life torn between love and madness, between solitude and a lack of passion. His ascetic refrain is a different way of responding to this isolation, this unknowing of life, while Karin and Minus are actively grappling with demons. Their father is now living a philosophy that warrants a peculiar harmony in itself, whether I understood it or not. This movie is a quiet masterpiece, and it is an ode to realism, of cinema and it decorating life and the unique religious solitude of isolated and grim places. Harriet Anderson's performance is the highlight of a great movie and her bare and fragile world enhances the fragility of these four characters and of life itself.